Title: Southern Aurora
Author: Mark Brandi
Publisher: Hachette, June 2023; RRP: $32.99
Southern Aurora is Mark Brandi’s fourth novel. Initially Mark published Wimmera, which won the British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. The Rip, his second novel, was published in 2019. His third novel, The Others, was short listed in 2022 for Best Fiction in The Ned Kelly Awards. Mark worked in the justice system prior to his writing career. From Italy originally, the author was raised in rural Victoria before moving to Melbourne.
In Southern Aurora, Jimmy is a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks in Mittigunda, a fictional small country town on the Southern Aurora’s line halfway between Melbourne and Sydney. Jimmy has a younger brother, Sam – he’s different, goes to a special school and Jimmy looks out for him. His older brother, Mick, is in jail, soon to be released. His mum’s boyfriend, Charlie, is an angry man causing Jimmy to weave his existence between watching for signs of something about to go wrong and making sure his mother and brother are okay if it does. He lives in a constant state of hyper vigilance. He attends school but doesn’t much care for it; he’s a bit of a loner except for his friend, Danny.
Jimmy’s mum has a drinking problem, which leaves her vulnerable and exposes her and her boys to the harmful and dangerous influence of her boyfriend. Charlie comes and goes and so does any normality in their lives. Jimmy and his mum wait in false hope that when Mick returns from jail, somehow life will improve.
A billycart event planned by his school entices Jimmy and Sam to resurrect Mick’s old billycart, The Firefox, from the shed. A series of events take place around the billycart and Jimmy’s honesty is compromised. His inner thoughts are always churning.
From the first page of Southern Aurora, the story grips hard. It bites at the imagination and delivers the reader to the very spot.
There’s hardly any shade at our school, just one big pepper corn tree that makes your hand sticky if you touch the leaves. Most of the yard is boiling hot asphalt.
Mark Brandi brings the voice of Jimmy to the page in a manner that very few writers manage. His acutely accurate descriptions and spare text bring alive Jimmy’s difficult and often tortuous attempts for something to go right for him. This story touches the very heart of what it is to be underprivileged and without power. There are, however, some very poignant and tender moments.
This story remains in the consciousness long after the end of the book. A story of family, ongoing life struggles and kids who are left to navigate the tough circumstances that adults get caught up in. This book is impossible to put down.
Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche
Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, June 2023
Review copy provided by the publisher